Ojibwe language camp is an adventure in cultureLaid out like a semi-circular bulls-eye, this year’s Ojibwe Language Camp hugged Big Lake with a half ring of wigwam-styled shelters. Participants’ tents of all shapes and colors skirted the outside and, overhead, emerald leaves unfurled into the blue sky.
By: Luke Heine, Pine Journal
Laid out like a semi-circular bulls-eye, this year’s Ojibwe Language Camp hugged Big Lake with a half ring of wigwam-styled shelters. Participants’ tents of all shapes and colors skirted the outside and, overhead, emerald leaves unfurled into the blue sky.
Inside one of the shelters, sheets of paper speckled the walls, proclaiming words such as “tent,” “willow,” or “birch bark” with their respective Ojibwemowin translation underneath. Below the lashed canopies of other shelters, porcupine quills, white cedar blocks, or willow strips crowned tables.
Regardless of the structure, Ojibwemowin was prevalent. And while the written, polysyllabic Ojibwemowin words — a product of Western attempts to transcribe a previously oral language — may have initially appeared daunting for students, instructors guided pronunciation and, in turn, internalization.
“Start from the back,” language instructor and camp co-founder Jim Northrup told students. “Sound out each syllable from the back, say it twice, and progress to the next.”
While the festival naturally began for most attendees with finding a parking spot, its creators explained the camp’s origin sparked in 2009. Rick Gresczyk, a camp co-founder, said he was playing an evening game of Scrabble with Jim and Pat Northrup when the idea for a fun, educational Ojibwe language camp caught fire. Choosing Kiwenz Campground to host the event, partly for its lakeshore beauty and partly because, as Gresczyk chuckled, “water makes a great babysitter,” four years later Gresczyk said the camp boasted 700 language learners.
Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College (FDLTCC) graduate and State Native American Quiz-Bowl champion Marcus Ammesmaki said the event’s goal of revitalizing a language that
Minnesota’s Indian Affairs Council currently considers in critical condition is already coming to fruition.
Attending this year’s camp to further FDLTCC’s efforts of recording elders speaking, Ammesmaki explained that before the camp he “had to create a lot of [his] own things to learn” and that the camp has filled a void in providing “resources for younger students.”
Alex Johnson and Hayley Olson, both American Indian majors at the University of Minnesota, agreed that “the hardest part of [learning Ojibwemowin] is finding the people to speak with.”
“By gathering so many speakers, [the camp] for sure…promotes the language,” said Johnson.
While offering language instruction, the event also touted a variety of cultural opportunities.
The camp is “a lot of fun” attendant Vicky Ellis stressed.
“Last year, I came down for a couple hours but ended up staying every day,” Ellis said.
Activities vary. For example, at one point in the camp, a group of students descended upon a grove of willow saplings for use in basket weaving while Vern Northrup instructed the group to search for young willows “about pinky width.”
Another session involved a group of gourmands surrounding smoked beaver tail and deer neck as griller Charlie Nahgahaub explained the fresh herbs he harvested for the seasoning while offering samples of his “maple sugar, molasses, soy sauce, ginger ale, and maple syrup” marinade that he intended to paint over the pounds of smoked whitefish donated by Bayfield’s Newago Store.
A couple of shelters down, Francis Montano intermittently played one of the flutes he crafted,describing the techniques he used to carve it and how White Cedar’s absorptive qualities impart a “smoother sound and airflow.” Later, he elaborated upon the nuanced discrepancies between Sioux and Ojibwe flutes.
For Brandon Kingbird, who said he “wanted get to know [his] culture a little bit more,” the language camp is a great program.
Yet, while the event offered entertainment, cultural education, and a veritable buffet (the camp provided free meals), Pat Northrup reminded listeners that because “the language is sacred,” it holds significant importance for Ojibwe spirituality.
Pat explained while watching children frolic in Big Lake that the Ojibwe people believe the language was gifted from The Creator.
“It was given to us,” she said.
Therefore, the event formally began with a group of men paddling into Big Lake and offering tobacco to the lake. In addition, a pipe ceremony was held on land.
“We wanted to do it right,” co-founder Rick Gresczyk said when reflecting upon the camp.
And, as attendant Aki Mashkiki Mukwa later told his son, “It’s always the right time to learn. You just need to find the right teacher.”